Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Trombonist Michael Dease’s Latest Album: How Many Flavors Can You Handle?

Trombonist Michael Dease‘s latest album All These Hands – streaming at Posi-Tone Records – is an ambitious jazz travelogue. The title is a characteristically wry reference to the fact that he’s got so many people on it. On one hand, it’s a chance for the bandleader to show off his command of a whole bunch of regional styles: lookit me, I’m in New Orleans! Now I’ve gone back to the Delta to visit Robert Johnson’s grave! But what’s consistent, beyond the relevance and the sometimes grim historical references throughout this vast, diverse collection, is the tunesmithing. Riffs jump out at you from all over and have you humming them afterward despite yourself. No wonder all these big names want to play with him: the core band on the album has Renee Rosnes on piano, Gerald Cannon on bass, Lewis Nash on drums and Steve Wilson doing his usual multi-reed thing, with Etienne Charles on trumpet and Randy Napoleon on guitar. Dease is leading most of this band over a weekend stand on May 26 and 27 at 10:30 PM at Smalls.

Before we leave town here, what does Dease’s portrait of Brooklyn sound like? Kenny G? A trombone with a drum machine? A virtual trombone? Wait, those are Notbrooklyn things, as we say around these parts. Set to Nash’s steady, flickering clave groove, Dease’s Brooklyn is latin, and full of light/dark contrasts and hints of early Steely Dan – Brooklyn knows the charmer under this guy. In fact, it’s one of the album’s best songs, with a deliciously slippery bass solo from guest Rufus Reid.

The rest of the album measures up strongly. The opening number, Creole Country is balmier and more bossa-tinged than the name might imply, the beat loosening into a shuffle artfully and imperceptibly, Rosnes anchoring Dease and Wilson’s airy lines. Delta City Crosssroads is a sagely animated conversation between Dease’s muted, tongue-in-cheek character and Napoleon’s rustic slide man. There are two similar blues duets later on: the Detroit shout-out Black Bottom Banger, between Dease and Cannon, and Memphis Fish Fry, Dease pairing off jauntily against Rosnes’ Fender Rhodes.

The Dizzy Gillespie-inspired Good & Terrible is another catchy clave tune, Rosnes again grounding Dease’s purposeful, airy solo, Cannon taking a wry tiptoe tangent. Territory Blues is as straight-up as a swing blues can get, with purist solos from Cannon and Napoleon – whose presence on what sounds like a National steel guitar is an unexpectedly welcome touch. Benny’s Bounce is another swing tune with a long series of handoffs: Dease’s bubbly solo to Wilson’s more airy tenor, Rosnes’ clusters and Cannon finally hitting that Benny Golson-influenced bounce.

The band goes back to the default clave for the album’s most epic track, Downtown Chi-Town, which could just as easily be Spanish Harlem, Wilson’s spiraling flute handing off to the bandleader, percolating as he chooses his spots and then giving Wilson the floor for some enigmatically modal explorations on tenor. Everybody gets into the act at the end.

Dease opens Gullah Shout Ring with a long, allusively bluesy solo and then holds the center as guitar and bass flutter and stab at the perimeter – it’s the freest number here, at least until they pull it together into another swing blues with an implied Heartbreak Hotel vibe. Muted suspense and chirpy trombone-and-trumpet riffs punctuate the goodnatured Chocolate City, a diptych of sorts that goes completely in the opposite direction, fueled by Rosnes and Dease: it’s a riveting piece of music with a real payoff. Guest bassist Rodney Whitaker makes the most of a solo piece to end the album, mashing up the blues with a moody, ragaesque quality. It’s awfully rare that you hear an album with so many flavors which is as this solid as this one is all the way through. Count on Dease to pull out just as many over Memorial Day weekend.

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May 17, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Maria Schneider Orchestra Bring a Luminous, Relevant New Album to a Stand at Birdland

To pigeonhole the Maria Schneider Orchestra‘s latest magnum opus, The Thompson Fields. as pastoral jazz downplays its genuinely extraordinary beauty and epic sweep. But a musicologist would probably consider how much the vast expanses of the Minnesota prairie where Schneider grew up have influenced her writing. To call Schneider this era’s paradigmatic big band jazz composer would also be just part of a larger picture: among this era’s composers in any style of music, only Kayhan Kalhor and Darcy James Argue reach such ambitious and transcendent peaks. She’s bringing her Orchestra to a stand at Birdland this week, June 2 through 6 with sets at 8:30 and 11 PM.

As is her custom, Schneider’s compositions go far, far beyond mere vehicles for extended solos, although the solos here are exquisite and serve as the high points they ought to be. Scott Robinson’s alto clarinet dipping between heartfelt lows and airily triumphant swells on the opening number, a newly reorchestrated take of the early-morning nocturne Walking by Flashlight – from Schneider’s previous album Winter Morning Walks – sets the stage.

That number is the shortest one here: the rest of the album builds an expansive, dynamically rich Midwestern panorama. All of Schneider’s familiar tropes are in top form: her use of every inch of the sonic spectrum in the spirit of her mentor Gil Evans; endless twists and turns that give way to long, lushly enveloping, slow upward climbs; and her signature, translucent, neoromantically-influenced tunesmithing. Marshall Gilkes’ looming trombone and Greg Gisbert’s achingly vivid flugelhorn illuminate The Monarch and the Milkweed, a pensively summery meditation on the beauty of symmetry and nature. Robinson’s baritone and Donny McCaslin’s tenor sax take to the sky in Arbiters of Evolution, a labyrinthine, pulsing, slowly unwinding portrait of birds in flight (perhaps for their lives – as in much of Schneider’s work, there’s a wary environmentalist point of view in full effect here).

Frank Kimbrough’s piano and Lage Lund’s guitar carry the title track from its gentle, plainspoken intro through an unexpectedly icy interlude to gracefully dancing motives over lush waves of brass. The most pastoral of all the cuts here is Home, graced by Rich Perry’s calm, warmly meditatitve tenor sax. Then the orchestra picks up with a literally breathtaking pulse, inducing g-forces as Nimbus reaches its stormy heights, Steve Wilson’s alto sax swirling as the cinematics unfold. As a portrait of awe-inspiring Midwestern storm power, it’s pretty much unrivalled.

Gary Versace’s plaintive accordion takes centerstage amidst a rich, ominously brooding brass chart in the intense, elegaic A Potter’s Song, dedicated to the late, great trumpeter and longtime Schneider associate Laurie Frink. The album winds up on a joyously Brazilian-flavored note with Lembranca, inspired by a pivotal moment in Schneider’s life, spellbound by a carnival drum orchestra, Ryan Keberle’s trombone and Jay Anderson’s bass adding color and bouncy energy.

The album, a crowdfunded endeavor comprising newly commissioned works, comes in a gorgeously illustrated full-color digipak with extensive and articulate liner notes from the composer. Like a couple other pantheonic artists, Richard Thompson and Olivier Messiaen, Schneider is also a birder, and her commentary on current environmental crises affecting the avian world and her beloved prairie home turf are spot-on. Where does this fall in the Schneider catalog? It’s hard to say: there’s the ambition and scope of, say, Concert in the Garden, but also the saturnine majesty of Winter Morning Walks. It’s a new direction for her, no surprise considering how often she’s reinvented herself. And while it doesn’t seem to be up at the usual spots, i.e. Spotify and such, you can get completely lost in the radio feature at Schneider’s webpage. It’s the best possible advertising this album, and her work as a whole, could possibly have.

May 30, 2015 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project Does It Again Live at the Jazz Standard

Pretty much everybody, at least in the jazz world, agreed that Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans, by conductor and Evans scholar Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project, was the best album of 2012. You rarely see that kind of consensus. Even for an ambitious jazz bandleader, it was an enormously labor-intensive achievement. Truesdell also left himself little wiggle room for a sequel: pretty much anything was destined to be anticlimactic. So Truesdell – who has probably spent more time unearthing rare and previously unknown Evans compositions and arrangements than anyone else – flipped the script. Rather than emphasizing the iconic big band composer’s genre-smashing, paradigm-shifting later works, the group’s new live album, Lines of Color features a lot of older material. It’s also on the upbeat side: Evans’ music is Noir 101 core curriculum, and what’s here tends to be more lighthearted than Evans typically is. So there’s another cult audience – the oldtimey swing crowd – that will probably love this if they get to hear it. You can hear this mighty, stormy, dynamically rich, twenty-plus-piece group when they play their annual residency at the Jazz Standard starting this Thursday, May 14 and running through the 17th, with sets at 7:30 and 10 PM. It’s pricy: $30, and $35 on the weekend, but it’s worth it. Remember, the club doesn’t have a drink minimum (although they have a delicious and surprisingly affordable menu if you feel like splurging).

The new album opens with a punchy, sleek take of the noir waltz Time of the Barracudas, from the iconic 1964 album The Individualism of Gil Evans. On the heels of a bouncy Marshall Gilkes trombone solo, tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin takes it up with an aptly marionettish pulse through a series of a playful hints at endings. The band follows by reinventing Bix Beiderbecke’s Davenport Blues as a lustrous slow drag, Mat Jodrell’s trumpet carrying its triumphant New Orleans tune much of the way. This version is notable for being exactly the way Evan originally wrote it before many better-known revisions, right down to the second line-flavored break midway through.

Avalon Town both embodies its dixieland origins and transcends them – those oceanically eerie close harmonies as it opens are a prime example of how Evans could take something utterly generic and make magic out of it. And you thought you knew (or wish you’d forgotten) Greensleeves? Just wait til you hear the mighty outro and warily tasty Marshall Gilkes trombone solo that concludes it.

John Lewis’ Concorde, another track from The Individualism of Gil Evans, has more of a jet-age ebullience and plushness than the uneasily bossa-tinged original – here Lois Martin’s viola plays Lewis’ original righthand figure for piano. Singer Wendy Gilles does a marvelously nuanced job, ranging from fullscale angst to playful cajolery on Can’t We Talk It Over, over a pillowy backdrop with Evans’ signature high reed/low brass dichotomy. Later on, she offers an elegantly cheery take of Sunday Drivin’.

Gypsy Jump, an early work from 1942, reveals that already Evans was doing things like hinting at Tschaikovsky and opening with a figure he’d recycle memorably later on with Miles Davis. It’s lternately neblous and disarmingly oldtimey, McCaslin’s sax enhancing the former and Steve Kenyon’s clarinet the latter. Then the band makes a medley of Easy Living, Everything Happens to Me – centered around Gilles’ heartfeld, angst-driven, tersely bluesy phrasing – and another Johnny Mercer tune, Moon Dreams, which builds to a galactic sweep, dreamy JMW Turner colors over that omnipresent low, murky pulse.

Just One of Those Things is another mashup of vintage swing and lush sophistication, Steve Wilson’s purposefully fluttering yet unresolved soprano sax solo at the center. The album ends with a take of How High the Moon that’s on the slow side – at least for a song that so often gets played lickety-split – with an exchange of barely bar-length solos frou throughout the band, bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Lewis Nash pushing it with what’s practically a shuffle beat. You like epic? You like counterintuitive? You like venues with exquisite sound? The album was recorded in this very same space, most likely in front of a sold-out house, but it’s a big-studio quality production. Some if not all of it is up at Truesdell’s webpage along with tracks from that amazing first album.

May 12, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Maria Schneider Orchestra at the Jazz Standard: Go See Them If You’re in Town

Great tunesmiths never have to look far to find good musicians. Wednesday night’s late set by the Maria Schneider Orchestra at the Jazz Standard may have been a clinic in cutting-edge writing for large ensemble, but it was also a summit meeting of some of New York’s edgiest jazz talent. Schneider and this awe-inspiring cast are here through Sunday at 7:30 and 9:30, an annual Thanksgiving week tradition that, if you haven’t already joined the cult, is waiting for you to discover and be hooked by it forever.

The most unforgettable solo of the night was when pianist Frank Kimbrough segued from the slinky, suspenseful soul groove Night Watchman into the more sweepingly lush Sailing, adding a menacingly glittering noir coda packed with chromatics and macabre major-on-minor riffs before the bright, buoyant atmospherics set in.  Or, it might have been tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s droll, mischievous portrayal of hijinks out on a Minnesota lake, Schneider looking back on hanging with friends during her formative years. There was also a slowly unfolding, enigmatic but warmly chordal solo from guitarist Lage Lund, an even more ambient and plaintive one from accordionist Gary Versace. an allusively microtonal Steve Wilson alto sax solo; a thoughtfully considered, spiraling trombone solo by Marshall Gilkes and a more spacious yet also more rhythmically adventurous one later on from Ryan Keberle – and there were others. Ironically, this big band relies less on soloing than any other. It’s Schneider’s compositions that people come out for: contributions from the rest of the personalities are the icing on the cake.

A couple of  the set’s early tunes were the bluesiest and most in-the-tradition, but also less of a showcase for the sweeping colors and epic majesty that characterizes so much of Schneider’s more recent work: it was as she was saying, “So you think I was good then? You should hear me now.” A new one, dedicated to the late Brazilian percussionist Paolo Mora, was inspired by the time he took Schneider out to see a performance of one of his massive student ensembles: “It was like being shot out of a cannon,” Schneider explained, being surrounded on all sides by all the percussive firepower. And this piece, with its swirling, hypnotic midsection, had the same effect, bolstered by her signature melody and sweep. But there were just as many hushed, rapt moments, as in the closing number, a bittersweet, pre-dawn Great Plains tableau (from Schneider’s recent Dawn Upshaw collaboration, Morning Walks), or when bassist Jay Anderson built elegant, plaintive pointillisms with guitar voicings as swells subsided to whispers.

It also happened to be Schneider’s birthday, and she was overcome both by the band’s affection – not to mention their blend of meticulousness and titanic, Gil Evans-inspired power – and by her memories of the late trumpeter Laurie Frink, an important part of this ensemble for several years. It wasn’t much of a surprise that Schneider would wear her heart on her sleeve, considering how emotionally direct her music is. If you’re in town this weekend, go see her.

November 27, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ellingtonian Depth and Purpose from Christian McBride

On one hand, to spend time on Christian McBride and Inside Straight’s new Mack Avenue album People Music here, when it’s already been out for two weeks and most everybody who wants it probably already has it, might not make a lot of sense. On the other hand, this is an important album for 2013. To call it Ellingtonian wouldn’t be off the mark. Deeply rooted in the blues, with strong hooks, gritty tunesmithing and a purposeful, workmanlike performance from an inspired cast of A-listers (slightly subsumed in the crisp digital production), it’s one of the best albums of the year. The concept of People Music is music for the people: tunes and a beat. Obviously, it’s not that simple. McBride’s mix of brisk, matter-of-fact swing and expansive balladry leans toward the dark side and mixes up the metrics: it’s a long way from being a pop record. Everybody’s on the same page: besides McBride, most of the album features Steve Wilson on alto and soprano sax, Carl Allen on drums, Peter Martin on piano and Warren Wolf on vibes, with Christian Sands and Ulysses Owens switching in on piano and drums on two tracks.

Sands’ steely-eyed lyricism drives the memorable opening track, the minor-key swing blues Listen to the Heroes Cry, handing off to an understatedly plaintive McBride bass solo. The bright, Brazilian-tinged Fair Hope Theme is a Wolf feature: it’s a dead ringer for a Behn Gillece tune, which is a compliment to both McBride’s writing and Wolf’s playing. The showstopper here is Gang Gang with its rolling, Indian-inflected rhythm, a biting piano vamp (Sands again) teaming with the vibraphone for a creepy carnivalesque crescendo, Allen’s deft cymbals peppering the rewarding final ascent.

Maya Angelou gets a ballad that portrays her with a nonchalant majesty, Wilson’s balmy soprano sax handing off to a tender Wolf spot that  builds to an unexpected clave groove and then winds down again. The Movement has an agitated, flurrying Mingus bustle, the whole band’s no-nonsense, percussive attack making its way methodically to an edgy Wilson alto solo. His alto also serves as a fiery foil to the nonchalantly dancing, staccato pulse of Usual Suspects, while Dream Train works a fast tiptoeing swing groove, Wolf’s rapidfire ripples in a tug-of-war with Martin’s purposeful, tumbling attack. They reprise the New Hope theme at the end as slinky clave soul. Is it any wonder why McBride is so popular?

May 29, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Gil Evans Project at the Jazz Standard This Week: Major Moment in NYC Music History

Isn’t it a good feeling to be witness to history – and be aware enough to realize in the moment that it’s something you’ll take with you for the rest of your life? Like Wadada Leo Smith’s stand earlier this month in Brooklyn, the Gil Evans Project‘s ongoing weeklong residency at the Jazz Standard is an important moment in New York jazz history. Last night, midway through the big band’s first set, conductor Ryan Truesdell received the Jazz Journalists’ Association’s awards for best album of 2012 and for best big band. Truesdell had known about this for a few days but clearly, the impact hadn’t sunk in. He searched for a place in front of the band that wasn’t covered in scores. “I’m all discombobulated up here,” he groused. If that’s discombobulation, the rest of us are in trouble.

Throughout the week, Truesdell – one of the world’s most passionate and insightful Evans scholars – has been focusing on different parts of the iconic composer/arranger’s life. This evening’s centerpieces were works from the 1964 album The Individualism of Gil Evans. “It changed my life,” Truesdell explained, and no doubt there were others in the crowd who shared that feeling: practically fifty years later, the pull of its dark, burnished colors is no less magnetic. He and the band repeat the program – no doubt with plenty of surprises – tonight, and then revisit Evans’ and Miles Davis’ Porgy and Bess on Sunday to wind up the week with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Needless to say, reservations are recommended.

Rather than playing the whole album all the way through, the ensemble teased the crowd, alternating numbers from it along with some unexpected treats. This set’s highest point of many was a slow, towering, ornate, angst-fueled ballad that Truesdell had just recently discovered among Evans’ papers, a fragment simply titled Blues, which was getting its world premiere. You don’t expect a fragment to turn into fifteen minutes of lingering, resonant intensity, but that’s what this one was. Blues in this case meant pianist Frank Kimbrough’s big block chords leading up to a characteristically rich cloud of sound big enough to block out the sun. Alto saxophonist Dave Pietro made his way carefully and moodily through a modally-fueled solo before trombonist Marshall Gilkes went in a more trad, upbeat direction. When the piece threatened to collapse under its own weight at one point, Kimbrough was there in a split second with an absolutely creepy upper-register riff; and then they were back on track.

They’d opened with a deliciously fluid, resonant take on Nothing Like You, if anything more fully fleshed out than the tiptoeing swing of the album version, Kimbrough scampering and then turning the spotlight over to Tom Christensen’s hard-hitting tenor sax. Truesdell acknowledged that the version of John Lewis’ Concorde on that album is one of the most difficult pieces to play in the entire jazz repertoire, but the group was up for it. “We have the best tuba and bass trombone players in the universe,” Truesdell bragged, and Marcus Rojas and George Flynn held up, digging into the groove as the cha-cha built to a dazzling, fugal exchange of licks percolating through the group as the song reached final altitude. Meaning of the Blues took the Miles Ahead arrangement and expanded on it, a lush, slow forest fire lit up further by another pair of methodical, minutely intuitive Gilkes and Pietro solos, drummer Lewis Nash weaving subtly back and forth between time signatures as the piece shifted from somber to animated and back. They closed the set with an arrangement of Greensleeves – which Evans had originally written for Kenny Burrell in 1965 – taking the world’s most innocuous melody and made noir folk out of it, Kimbrough leading the way this time with a distant menace.

It’s not easy to keep track of everybody in this band, considering that Truesdell had contracted for 34 players for the week. Contributors to this scary/beautiful evening included but were not limited to trumpeters Greg Gisbert, Augie Haas and Laurie Frink; saxophonists Alden Banta; Steve Wilson and Donny McCaslin; french horn players Adam Unsworth and David Peel, Lois Martin on viola and Jay Anderson on bass.

May 18, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Transcendent Night with the Maria Schneider Orchestra

You might not expect a club to be packed on the eve of Thanksgiving, but the Jazz Standard was sold out and there was good reason for that: the Maria Schneider Orchestra were playing the second night of their annual weeklong stand here, and word had obviously gotten around. If jazz is your thing and you haven’t seen this band in awhile, now’s the time. The Jazz Standard is closed Thanksgiving day but they’ll be open tomorrow the 23rd, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30; Schneider will be here through Nov 25.

At the risk of inciting jealousy among other composers, Schneider is the gold standard as far as writing for big band is concerned these days – and has been for some time. Her music is an instance where the melodies mirror the artist herself, lithe and beautiful. Her work is defined by an economy of notes, vivid emotional attunement, lyrical transparency, ability to surprise and even stun and evince every breath worth of talent from the formidable cast behind her. For the mighty beast that they are, this orchestra can be exceptionally quiet: last night’s early set seemingly had as many solo, duo, trio and quartet passages as it did fullscale, all-stops-out crescendos. The result is plenty of suspense as well as a dynamic that sets up those big, sweepingly majestic swells so they can revel in their lustrous glory.

Even by Schneider’s standards, this particular set was transcendent, loaded with rich payoffs like that. Casually but energetically, she led the band through her well-loved Concert in the Garden, its bright, triumphant anthemics and lively Brazilian rhythms contrasting with terse guitar solos and an unexpectedly chilling, chromatically-fueled Frank Kimbrough piano solo out. The cinematic Journey Home wound its way methodically through its brass-heavy introductory theme, a series of rises and ebbs over a dancing tropical groove, Dave Pietro’s alto sax solo handing off nimbly to trombonist Ryan Keberle, who took his time as the chart wound down to just him and the rhythm section before bringing it up with a lushly energetic pulse.

Dance You Monster to My Soft Song, a standout track from Schneider’s 1992 debut, vividly drove home its taunting, tantalizing themes inspired by a Paul Klee painting in the Guggenheim. It’s an ambitious work full of ominous slides and tricky metrics, punctuated this time out by a wailing, upper-register bari sax solo from Scott Robinson and an agitatedly heated hard-bop conversation between soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen.

A brand-new song dedicated to George Wein, an early champion of Schneider’s music, made its New York premiere, dancing its way to a warm, balmy series of shifting sheets of sound, lit up by an expansively lyrical Rich Perry alto sax solo and Kimbrough’s glimmering nocturnal piano. Big band jazz simply doesn’t get any better or more memorable than this. The ensemble wrapped up the set with a towering, stormy take on El Viento, a showstopper if there ever was one, working an Arabic-tinged mode with venomously powerful, succinct solos from Chris Potter on tenor sax and Mike Shapiro on trombone. As it hit the final series of seemingly endless false endings, it was easy to hope that the band simply wouldn’t end it and would keep going as long as the club would let them. In sum: this is why big band jazz is so much fun, a monster performance from a group which also included Tony Kadleck, Laurie Frink and Garrett Schmidt on trumpets, Jay Anderson on bass, Clarence Penn on drums, Marshall Gilkes and George Flynn on trombones.

November 22, 2012 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Gil Evans Centennial Album: A Major Moment in Jazz History

Conductor/arranger Ryan Truesdell launched the Gil Evans Project last year to commemorate the centennial of the most cinematic composer in the history of jazz. To date, Truesdell has staged a series of commemorative big band concerts as well as releasing the album Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans. Given access to the Evans family archive, Truesdell unearthed numerous unrecorded works, ten of which are included here: three compositions and seven arrangements. As history, it’s a fascinating look at the development and crystallization of Evans’ visionary style. As a work of art, it’s classic Gil Evans: deep, rich and relentlessly intense, a titanic achievement and a major moment in jazz history, on par with the discovery of Charles Mingus’ Epitaph. It trivializes any consideration of where this album might stand on a “best albums of the year” list: this is music for eternity.

Evans was the personification of noir. His lush, epic charts refuse to cede defeat even as the shadows creep in – or sweep in, which is more often the case. His influence cannot be understated, although, strange as it may seem, he remains an underrated composer: his best work ranks with Shostakovich, or Ellington, both composers he resembles, often simultaneously. The mammoth orchestra here, totaling 36 musicians, rises to a herculean challenge: some of the playing here is so brilliant as to be career-defining. The high-water marks here are the original works. The first previously unreleased piece, Punjab, was originally intended to be released on the legendary 1964 lp The Individualism of Gil Evans but for some reason never made the cut (maybe because it’s almost fifteen minutes long). The sonics could only be Evans, a spectrum reaching from the darkest depths to the most ethereal highs. The composition hauntingly blends Middle Eastern and Indian themes with energetically jazz and blues-based interludes, a characteristic roller-coaster ride from Dan Weiss’ hypnotic tabla introduction, to screaming woodwind cadenzas, menacing low brass portents and suspensefully whispery washes, alto saxophonist Steve Wilson’s long, allusively modal, spiraling solo accented by Frank Kimbrough’s apprehensively twinkling piano and the devastatingly direct drums of Lewis Nash. As usual, the soloists are interpolated within the framework of the whole: in many cases Evans creates the illusion that there is interplay between the chart, or at least part of the orchestra, and the soloist.

The work that Truesdell – one of the world’s leading Evans scholars – ranks as the composer’s magnum opus is the nineteen-minute-plus triptych Waltz/Variation on the Misery/So Long. Although versions of these pieces were released separately in the 60s, the arrangement for the three pieces together is from an unrecorded 1971 Berlin concert and it is as massive as Evans ever got (which says a lot). Vibraphonist Joe Locke turns in the performance of a lifetime injecting luridly macabre phrases, alternately stealthy and breathtakingly frantic, over ominous cumulo-nimbus backdrops, murderously mysterious climbs from the depths and incessantly terse, shifting voices within the orchestra. Wilson follows with an equally astonishing, memorable solo, riddled with microtones like a bullet-spattered getaway car. The angst is inescapable, notwithstanding Beethovenesque brass luminosity, a warmly soulful Marshall Gilkes trombone solo, Evans’ signature light/dark contrasts everywhere and an ending that is completely the opposite of everything that foreshadows it.

An equally noir if slightly shorter track here, with a previously unreleased arrangement from that 1971 concert, is Kurt Weill’s Barbara Song. Evans recorded this on the Individualism lp with a band only two-thirds the size of the ensemble here and the result is a mighty, surrealistically chilling, absolutely transcendent sweep. Locke again dazzles and ripples in a centerstage role, this time providing illumination over the sometimes distant, sometimes imminent sturm und drang driven by Nash’s succinct insistence and the lurking bass trombone of George Flynn.

Most of us know The Maids of Cadiz from the Miles Ahead album; the version here dates back seven years earlier to 1950 and Evans’ tenure in Claude Thornhill’s big band. It’s a revealing glimpse of Evans at work in a similar context, it’s almost twice as long and seems about fifty times as big. It’s amazing how Evans would go from the exuberantly ornate tango-jazz of this chart to the plushness – not to mention the terseness – of his version for Miles Davis. This one features prominent, portentous bass from Jay Anderson, a vividly nocturnal Kimbrough solo and a warm, absolutely gorgeous solo out by trumpeter Greg Gisbert.

A handful of tracks also portray Evans the working musician and his approach to some of the more pedestrian fare that paid his rent. How About You, a jaunty, dixieland-flavored Thornhill-era track, shows how he was employing alternate voicings throughout the orchestra just as cleverly as he would later in his career, not to mention the demands those charts made on the musicians. The closing cut, Look to the Rainbow – with vocals by Luciana Souza – first comes across as a relatively generic samba-pop song…but wait til the lush, bittersweet crescendo kicks in as the song winds up! And Evans’ own early 50s composition Dancing on a Great Big Rainbow – which somehow evaded making it onto vinyl despite being in the catalog of three of its era’s most popular big bands – seems a prototype for how he’d take a song from its upbeat origins and transform it into something completely different. This one grows wings but does the opposite of taking flight.

There are two other vocal numbers here, both of them absolutely Lynchian. Smoking My Sad Cigarette, sung with equal parts sadness and sass by Kate McGarry, features a pillowy arrangement that finally morphs into a swaying blues. The oldest track here, Beg Your Pardon, dates from 1946; Wendy Gilles sings it and absolutely knocks it out of the park with her coy, split-second, spot-on melismas. And Who’ll Buy My Violets, a ballad from the Thornhill era, is arguably the most Lynchian track here, Kimbrough doing an unexpected Floyd Cramer impersonation as the orchestra swells behind him and imbues what seems on the surface to be an innocuous pop melody with morose gravitas.

The sonic quality of the album is extraordinary: the care and attention to close-miking and minute detail is meticulous. Although nothing beats the vinyl warmth of a vintage Gil Evans record, this is the most sonically gorgeous digital recording of Evans’ work ever made. Kudos to engineer James Farber and the rest of the orchestra: flutists Henrik Heide and Jesse Han; oboeists Jennifer Christen and Sarah Lewis; bassoonists Ben Baron, Michael Rabinowitz and Alden Banta; multi-reedmen Dave Pietro, Donny McCaslin, Scott Robinson, Brian Landrus and Charles Pillow; horn players Adam Unsworth, David Peel and John Craig Hubbard; trumpeters Augie Haas and Laurie Frink; trombonist Ryan Keberle; tuba player Marcus Rojas; guitarists James Chirillo and Romero Lubambo, percussionist Mike Truesdell and tenor violinist Dave Eggar. It would take a book to give due credit for what they’ve accomplished here.

July 17, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Auspicious Studio Debut of the Christian McBride Big Band

If you think that kids only have an interest in stuff that’s on the web, talk to students in a jazz program, or just young people who’ve just found their jazz muse. The excitement is visceral – they’ve been waiting patiently for Christian McBride’s first album with his big band, titled The Good Feeling, just out on Mack Avenue. That excitement may be quaint, but it’s inspiring all the same. From the perspective of seeing McBride do some of these tunes live earlier this year, the cool kids are right (they always are) – the album was worth the wait.

Auspiciously, in a lot of places, this evokes nothing less than Mingus. Which makes sense – McBride is to the teens what Mingus was for a couple of decades, simply the most respected jazz bassist around. His approach characteristically balances excitement with gravitas, and occasionally a sly sense of humor. From the gleefully chugging baritone sax-and-bass intro to the opening swing number, Shake N Blake to the closing cut, In a Hurry, it’s a tuneful, meticulously arranged ride. The opening track sets the stage: a long expansive tenor solo cut off by big brass blasts, trumpeter Nicholas Payton being his good-natured self, trombonist Steve Davis taking it into apprehensively fluttering territory, and a cleverly tiptoeing solo by the bandleader himself that eventually starts stomping and brings the band back joyously.

The second track, Broadway, begins with Ron Blake’s understated soprano sax driving against the lush arrangement, with a long, deviously bluesy, literally unstoppable McBride solo. This version of the clave classic Brother Mister (which McBride also covered on his Kind of Brown album) gets a pillowy, staccato brass chart, alto saxophonist Steve Wilson sailing over the impatient rhythm section, with a bracing blast of brass setting off the second chorus as the whole band spins in a vortex. Live in concert in Manhattan earlier this summer, the song was every bit the casual showstopper it is here. The album’s centerpiece is a genuine classic, a titanic, practically twelve-minute version of Science Fiction (from McBride’s 2000 album Sci-Fi). It’s a noir suite straight out of Mingus: conspiratorial chatter over a clave beat; a blistering, fast swing shuffle with a bracing Todd Bashore alto sax solo; a chilling low-register bridge that goes straight to the murder scene, Xavier Davis’ piano fueling a riff that evokes Ennio Morricone’s Taxi Driver Theme.

The Shade of the Cedar Tree makes its way through to a clever false ending with Payton’s cool, bluesy vibe, Blake’s tenor interpolated judiciously against the towering ambience. Nat Cole’s I Should Care shifts from practically ethereal to surprisingly brooding, but Payton picks it up wryly and Blake keeps it going in that direction. They do A Taste of Honey as a jazz waltz – that one will resonate more with those who prefer the Herb Alpert version over the Beatles’. With its blazing crescendos and gingerly pointillistic bass/piano tradeoffs, Blues in Alphabet City vividly evokes the days when the Lower East Side New York neighborhood was interesting, before it turned into a wasteland of suburban conspicuous consumption. The album closes with the rapidfire swing of In a Hurry, Payton taking his time before he goes absolutely ballistic, McBride balancing intensity with a dark wit as he bows his solo, drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. bringing in a thinly disguised, jaunty second line rhythm

The rest of the orchestra deserves a shout-out as well: Todd Williams on tenor and flute; Loren Schoenberg (maestro of the Jazz Museum in Harlem) on tenor on two tunes; Carl Maraghi on baritone sax and bass clarinet; Frank Greene, Freddie Hendrix and Nabate Isles on trumpets; Michael Dease and James Burton on trombones; Douglas Purviance on bass trombone; and Melissa Walker on vocals. When uploading to your phone or your pod, you may want to omit the vocal tunes: it’s not that Walker doesn’t sing them well, it’s just that trying to squeeze substance out of material like When I Fall in Love is like getting getting blood from a stone.

September 25, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ryan Truesdell Resurrects a Gil Evans Classic Mothballed for Half a Century

Friday night the Jazz Standard looked to be sold out and for good reason. In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Impulse Records, the club has been playing host to a series of concerts commemorating artists or albums associated with the influential 1960s jazz label. This was the pick of the bunch, an allstar sixteen-piece cast assembled by composer Ryan Truesdell, a leading Gil Evans advocate and scholar, playing Evans’ 1961 big band cult classic Out of the Cool. Truesdell was quick to acknowledge the support of Evans’ widow Anita, who was in the audience. He also reminded that this may have been the first time the music on the album has been played live, as a whole, in fifty years. Which on one hand is mind-boggling – in the intervening five decades, couldn’t someone have pulled a band together just like Truesdell did? On the other hand, leaving it alone makes a lot of sense: it’s hard to improve on perfection.

In their opening set, they didn’t do the whole thing, substituting a vivid, animated version of Nothing Like You (a song long associated with Miles Davis, recorded on another cult classic, 1964’s The Individualism of Gil Evans) for the brooding atmospherics of Sunken Treasure. That choice kept the energy level up via a nonchalantly bristling solo from pianist Frank Kimbrough (spot-on in the Evans role with his judicious, incisive chordal attack) and a long, smokily bluesy one from tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland. As the album’s and the night’s opening track – George Russell’s Stratusphunk – unwound with a jaunty martial pulse, it was clear that this would be an attempt to reach for the brilliance of the original ensemble’s collective improvisation rather than to replicate it. A tall order, needless to say. But having eclectic, virtuoso tuba player Howard Johnson – whose association with Evans lasted more than two decades – helped. As did the presence of George Flynn on bass trombone and Michael Rabinowitz on bassoon, rounding out the low end along with bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa, who got a real workout doing an energetic impression of Ron Carter’s marathon walks.

Kurt Weill’s Bilbao Song got a deliciously pillowy performance, including nimble, incisive work from Kitagawa and guitarist Ben Monder along with ensemble work that dramatically brought out the contrasts between rhythm and the lush horizontality of the melody. Horace Silver’s Sister Sadie, which didn’t make it onto the album until the reissue, also paired off contrasts between the tune’s jaunty swing and some typical blazing, all-stops-out Evans crescendos, and a neat false ending. As expected, the high point of the set, in fact one of the high points of this year’s concerts so far, was an absolutely devastating version of Where Flamingos Fly. The most obviously Sketches of Spain-influenced number on the album, its tense noir atmospherics gave trombonist John Allred a long launching pad for a plaintive, wounded, chillingly beautiful solo spot. They closed with La Nevada, a noir epic on album, here more of a jam on its stunningly simple, memorable hook, Rabonowitz going with slow, gripping blues, trumpeter Greg Gisbert going at it fast, flutist Charles Pillow playfully elbowing Johnson off the page when the tuba started making some unexpected runs way up into flute territory. Drummer Clarence Penn, who’d been grinning almost nonstop at the prospect of getting to emulate Elvin Jones for a whole night, pounced on turnarounds and the end of phrases like a fighter who’s been waiting his whole life for the occasion.

Truesdell didn’t conduct so much as he signaled transitions – and did so with great intuition – although he made a great emcee. His passion for Evans’ music was contagious. Among other projects, he’s spearheading a celebration of the centenary of Evans’ birth this year, with concerts and a recording of some of the fifty-odd unpublished Evans compositions he’s unearthed.

April 25, 2011 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment